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Charles on Translation

Charles at Liminality has some interesting things to say about translation. Personally, while I have to respect anyone who translates a whole book,  or even a whole short story, I’ve come across some in Korea that are just clinkers, and I’ve discovered at least one translator who is consistently poor, or at least, I haven’t liked any of the things I’d read that were translated by him.

Lime and I looked through the list in the back of one of my books, which is from a pretty ubiquitous line of translated Korean short stories — The Portable Library of Korean Literature is the name of the line. I have enjoyed a fair number of the ones I have read — though I was surprised to discover how many I hadn’t yet gotten to — but the thing that kills me is that I cannot find anything more by most of the authors, at least not in print form. For example, I’d love to read more of Kim Young-ha, or Yi Sang, but I haven’t managed to find anything more by either of them. (Wait, I do have a collection of poetry on order that contains some of Yi Sang’s work, but I have to say I’m more interested in the fiction.)

So of course, I’m sympathetic to Charles’ idea that it’s better to translate work in collections, rather than just as individual stories. At least, for me, this would be a big plus — I’d love to see more Korean short-story collections in English, at least by authors I like.

The problem with that, and what I imagine is one reason that novels would sell better, is that short-story collections have less of a market worldwide than novels. This is definitely true in SF and other speculative fiction genres, which is weird. Short story markets are fewer, they pay less, and not as many people subscribe to the magazines. As for short story collections, I’ve noted over the years how many collections are published by different publishers than the ones who put out novels by the same author: it’s a little disturbing, and the trend seems, to me, to have increased in the last few years. But it’s a reflection of the market. Lots of people say that they don’t like short stories. Heck, until not long ago, I thought the novel was where it was at, too — and novels are still what I read more of, though I’m coming to terms with how hard writing a really good short story actually is.

I wonder how that works in Korea. I know that sometimes when I recommend a book in English to Lime, she says she prefers novels to short stories, which to me is a shock since, reading it in her second language, I’d imagine she’d want a breather here and there.  It’s not like she’s never read any short fiction: we sat around going, “What about the one where the guy takes the bus to the beach to kill himself, no wait, to a funeral, and he hears voices singing pansori by the ocean, or something like that?” But it seems to me that a lot of people I know are like that: however much they enjoy poetry, or are familiar with the great short stories of the past, it’s the novel that grabs them, just as short film has really failed to take off as a form of any real commercial significance. (Well, a little less than that, but you get the picture.)

I suspect one reason people aren’t into short fiction is that most of the boring crap they’re forced to read in school is short fiction. (Followed by poetry from a context so alien they have no hope of getting it.) Reading a bad novel in high school didn’t put me off novels, and as soon as I read e.e. cummings I was all about the poetry, but Ray Bradbury and a few others turned me off short stories in a way that I didn’t get over until I began to study literature again in my mid-twenties… and even now, given a choice between short stories and a novel, I’m 60% of the time going for the novel, all things being equal.

So anyway, I do have to wonder how that bodes for the mass majority of Korean fiction in translation. My impression is that short stories are a more appropriate way of dipping into a foreign culture, in some ways — it’s digestible, even when it’s very compact — but on the other hand, novels are almost completely certain to sell better. Then again, the margin of difference between sales of a translated short story collection and a translated novel may not be so wide as I imagine. I have no idea. I guess I’ll wait and see what Charles has to say about it.

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